English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Render onto Caesar the things which are Caesar's

What does this sentence mean?

share|improve this question
There is an extensive discussion of the multiple interpretations of this Biblical verse in this Wikipedia article. – user730 Dec 31 '10 at 5:27
It is a quote from the New Testament and it means "give to the Emperor what is his due", and it refers to taxes. It is usually interpreted as, "obey the state in earthly matters, obey God in religion, morals etc.". The Wikipedia article can explain it much better and more thoroughly than I could. – Cerberus Dec 31 '10 at 6:34
@Cerberus and @J.M - you should use your comments as answers. – Shannon Nelson Dec 31 '10 at 8:31
@Shannon: For me, a mere link does not an answer make. – user730 Dec 31 '10 at 8:38
@Shannon: Perhaps you are right, but low-content replies don't really feel like answers. Besides, sometimes a little subversion is appealing. – Cerberus Dec 31 '10 at 13:56
up vote 7 down vote accepted

The quote is "Render unto Caesar the things which are Ceasar's..." and comes from the Bible, Mark 12:17

Since this is a forum for discussion of language rather than exigesis, I will refrain from discussing the possible deeper contextual implications of the phrase, and instead clarify the semantic meaning.

Please be aware that the quote you have referenced comes from the King James Bible, a translation of biblical scripture that was carried out some centuries ago and therefore using language that can be mystifying to the modern reader. A more up-to-date translation in common use is the New International Version, which renders the quote thus:

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

This was in response to a question about whether Jews should pay taxes (or instead resist Roman authority.) Please refer to one of the many biblical study guides or websites for a scriptural analysis, or this Wikipedia article for a good primer (thanks J. M. and Scott Mitchell :-)

This particular biblical quote is used in different contexts to mean any one of a number of different things, but in my experience it is most commonly an exhortation to keep the affairs of religion and politics separate.

share|improve this answer
It might be worthwhile to edit your answer to include a link to get more background/context re: this passage. Wikipedia has a pretty good overview - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Render_unto_Caesar%E2%80%A6 – Scott Mitchell Dec 31 '10 at 17:24
@Scott Mitchell: Added as suggested - thanks! – PyroTyger Jan 4 '11 at 8:58
[As an interesting exegetical aside, this came after noting that Caesar's image was on Roman money. Join the dots with first two chapters of Genesis] – Benjol Jan 4 '11 at 12:23

Jesus' words, "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's," (Mt. 22, Mk. 12, Lk. 20 https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=give+to+Caesar&qs_version=NLT) means exactly what the words say. They manifestly do not mean "pay Caesar's tax," nor do they mean give him YOUR coins with his image on them. His words are a clear and simple statement of how one is to treat the property of others in accordance with the Decalogue. (Exodus 20) It means, "if you have something belonging to Caesar, give it back to him;" and by obvious, undeniable inference, "if not, give Caesar nothing of your own, for he will only use it to support his violent, evil regime of murder, rapine and enslavement."

The question, "Should we pay it (viz., Caesar's tax), or should we not?" (Mark 12) Was asked, as the Gospel of Luke makes abundantly clear, "to trap him in his words so as to hand him over to the power and authority of the governor." (Luke 20) The governor was Pilate, who was responsible for collecting Rome's taxes in Judea. He was ready and able to snuff out the life of anyone who resisted or led others to resist paying Rome's taxes.

Jesus' response was truly brilliant on several accounts. In essence, he told his antagonists exactly what they hoped he would say, but in such a way that his answer completely befuddled them and left them shaking their heads in amazement. In effect, he walked right into their trap, took the bait, and walked out unscathed, while his trappers looked on dumbfounded by his honesty and their own deceit.

His answer also subtly pointed out the fact that whatever Caesar might claim as his was not lawfully his in accordance with God's law forbidding stealing. (Exodus 20) Everything Caesar "owned" had been acquired unlawfully by force, through conquest, plunder, taxation or enslavement, in other words stolen.

And of course his listeners who were familiar with sacred Jewish Scripture, which would include most Jews of his day, knew that the Hebrew Bible states in at least six places, as in Psalm 24 verse 1, "The Earth is the Lord's and everything in it," which leaves nothing for poor old Caesar.

Finally, when they asked their insidious question, Jesus had them produce the coin used to pay the tax, a Roman denarius with Tiberius Caesar's "graven image" on it (see, Exodus 20), and an inscription referring to him as the "son of the divine Augustus," in competition with Jesus for that title. Since the incident occurred in the Temple precincts where the use of such coins was strictly forbidden by Jewish law, Jesus in effected showed one and all that his questioner who produced the coin was guilty of blasphemy by virtue of having the offending coin on his person.

Jesus knew he was soon to die at the hands of the Roman Empire's agent, Pontius Pilate, but he was not about to allow his death on the cross to be the result of being bamboozled by a venal trick of the chief priests, who, according to Luke, sent "spies" to ask him the entrapping question. When the spies returned to their handlers, no doubt the priests chastised them, "You fools, don't you realize you had him? His words can only mean "don't pay!"

Unable to outwit Jesus, his enemies next sent their henchmen to take him by force and at night as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. The next day they led him off to Caesar and accused him of promoting resistance to Rome's taxes: “This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government...he is causing riots by his teaching wherever he goes—all over Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem!" (Luke 23:2-5) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+23&version=NLT

Since Pilate left no memoir, it is impossible to know what motivated him to crucify Jesus. The Gospels imply Pilate crucified Jesus on the basis of the false accusation that he had called himself a king, whereas logic dictates he was crucified for his very public opposition to Caesar's tax. Since none of the Evangelists nor any of their informers would have attended Jesus' trail, the accounts of the trial in all four Gospels could only be based on the authors' pure speculation.

share|improve this answer

protected by tchrist Oct 27 '14 at 17:10

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.